I’ve stopped counting the number of times that I’ve been approached by people who say that they’re extremely stressed. Then when I talk to them, I realize that they have no idea why they are so stressed.
As I often say, it’s quite difficult — if not impossible — to kill a mammoth if you don’t even know where it is in the first place!
So today, I’ll be giving you a little mammoth hunting course by summarizing the stress deconstruction method that we have developed and validated in the lab.
To manage a stressor, you have to do 3 things (there’s actually 4, but I’ll discuss the fourth one in another blog post).
- Recognize the signs of stress: It may seem obvious, but first you have to be able to recognize when a stress response is underway. Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for clues that our body and brain are sending us to tell us that we are having a stress response. There are a variety of stress signs that we can use to recognize that it is time to hunt the mammoth. I have already summarized several of these signs here.
- Finding the origin of the stressor: Once we have realized that we are having a stress response, we must try to find the cause of the stressor. The origin of stress is often quite obvious. For example, you’ve just learnt that your spouse is leaving you. It’s obvious that this could be the source of your stress. However, the source can be sometimes difficult to pinpoint at first. When I have trouble identifying the source of my stress, I allow the little hamster wheel in my head to turn. I stop thinking about what I’m doing and I wait. And each time, the little hamster in my head starts repeating the same sentence over and over again. There we go, this is the stressor I was looking for!
- Deconstructing your stress: Once the source of my stress has been identified (e.g., Michelle stresses me out when she calls me), I start to deconstruct it. As I’ve pointed out many times in my blog posts, nearly 30 years of research studies have shown that there are 4 characteristics of a situation that will cause you to feel stressed no matter who you are, where you are, how old you are or what job you have. These characteristics are the feeling of not having control over the situation, the situation must be unpredictable or unforeseen, it must be novel and your ego must feel threatened. To help people remember these four characteristics, we always use the acronym NUTS and the phrase “Don’t go NUTS with stress”.
If you want to figure out what is stressing you out and why you are stressed, you must first deconstruct the situation that is stressing you (e.g. a stressful colleague in a video conference) using these 4 characteristics. This method may seem trivial, but it is extremely powerful in understanding our stressors.
My student Audrey-Ann Journault is currently doing her PhD on performance anxiety under my supervision. She is also an artist. I asked Audrey-Ann to make us a small ‘stress deconstruction’ chart that you can print and stick on your fridge to learn how to deconstruct your stressors (and to let your spouse and/or children know what is bothering you :)).
Your stress deconstruction chart has the same title as this blog post. Feel free to print it and use it! We have already helped thousands of youngsters (and adults) recognize their stress with this method. On top of that, we have evaluated the effectiveness of this approach in 500 young people and a few hundred adults. We demonstrated that when people apply the method, it leads to a decrease in stress hormones and depressive symptoms that are often associated with chronic stress. Therefore, this method is definitely worth giving a try during COVID-19!
So, here’s what you have to do. Each time you recognize a situation that is stressing you out, write it down in the first column on the left of the stress deconstruction chart. Then, for each situation, ask yourself if the situation is stressful because you have little control over it. If you answer ‘yes’, put an ‘X’ in the ‘S’ box associated with that situation. Next, ask yourself if the situation is stressful because it is unpredictable. If the answer is ‘yes’, put an ‘X’ in the ‘U’ box. If the answer is ‘no’, leave the ‘U’ box blank. Do this for each of the four stress characteristics and for each situation you write down.
If you have a lot of stress in your life and you don’t have enough room using Audrey-Ann’s chart, print out a bunch or create your own! And if you have several family members in confinement with you, feel free to print out a chart for each family member.
If you do this over several days and for many situations that you find stressful, you will learn several important things. First, you will begin to understand that different situations stress you for different reasons. A phone call from your boss at 7am was stressful because it was unpredictable, while the conflict with your husband was stressful because it threatened your ego.
Then, if at the end of the week you compare your chart with those of your family members, you will also learn that two people can react to the same stressor, but for completely different reasons. Mom may have reacted to the stress of grandpa’s illness because she didn’t feel that she had control over the situation. While Leah, age 8, reacted to this stressor because it was unpredictable. By comparing the NUTS stress elements experienced by family members, you will begin to understand that stress is a very personal experience and the reasons why one person reacts to an event may be completely different from the reasons why another person reacts to it.
Finally, the more stressful situations you record in your chart and the more you deconstruct them using the 4 characteristics, the more you’ll discover which of the four characteristics you are most sensitive to. In fact, once you have noted 6 to 10 stressful situations in the left-hand column, look at the number of ‘Xs’ written under the N, U, T and S. You will discover that there is always one of the 4 characteristics that almost always has an ‘X’ under it. It is that particular characteristic that you are the most sensitive to. By knowing this, you will be able to organize your day to avoid overloading them with this particular characteristic!
For example, by deconstructing my stressful situations using NUTS, I discovered that I am hypersensitive to unpredictability. Of the 4 characteristics of stress, this is the one that I react to the most. During these times of COVID-19, I am trying to organize my life to reduce unpredictability as much as possible and thus reduce my potential reactivity to stress. I don’t particularly like very rigid routines, but I have decided to set up a few time slots during which I can work to reduce the unpredictability of certain situations. It works wonders.
And one last little tip for you: when you have filled out your NUTS chart enough times to know which of the 4 characteristics of stress you are most sensitive to, compare your observations with that of your family members. I can guarantee that many stressful family situations will be explained! Mom is sensitive to unpredictability, dad is sensitive to his ego being threatened and for Felix, it’s novelty.
Deconstructing your stress is very powerful because it reduces the fear of stress. When we agree to deconstruct our stress, we can talk about it openly at the dinner table without hiding it as if it were the plague. You’ll see that you can even laugh about it! Sometimes I have fun with my children in predicting situations that would stress us based on our sensitivity to NUTS. And we’re rarely wrong 😉
As I described in my last blog post, once you’ve deconstructed your stressor, you have to reconstruct it. But I won’t give you this stress reconstruction course today. You’ll have to stay tuned for another upcoming blog post to learn more about this topic!
No. Today, I’m going to let you have fun with the stress deconstruction chart that Audrey-Ann has put together for us.
And you know what? With our mandatory confinement, you no longer have the excuse of not having time to fill out this little chart.
Isn’t that wonderful? 🙂
From Sonia Lupien, PhD., Director of the Center for Studies on Human Stress